Ties That Bind

Pnina Bechor was only 14 when she disappeared from her home in Yavniel. Almost seventy years later, her great niece, filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai, discovered traces of Bechor's life and members of her family in a Palestinian refugee camp near Nablus.

Newspapers in Palestine from the early 1940s carried hardly any mention of the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl from the moshava of Yavniel near Lake Kinneret. The girl's impoverished family - her parents and their seven other children - did not turn the world upside down to find her, and suspected she'd become pregnant by a young man from the community (who was killed a few years later in the War of Independence ). Nor did other Yavniel residents go to any lengths to search for her, perhaps because they chose not to expose the disgrace of the Ashkenazi youth who'd stumbled into the bosom of a Mizrahi family, living in a ramshackle hut at the edge of the moshava.

But Pnina Bechor hadn't died: She only disappeared, and would one day reappear and cause great upheaval in her family. Her story, which began as a family melodrama is now a documentary film, too: "Kirvat Dam" ("Blood Relation" ), directed by Noa Ben Hagai, Bechor's great-niece.

Pnina Bechor

The movie opens with Ben Hagai's astounding discovery which echoes the shock experienced by her family 40 years earlier: At the home of her grandmother Rachel, Pnina's sister, the filmmaker found heartbreaking letters written after the Six-Day War, from a female relative she'd never heard of before. "I'm not dead," said the writer, who pleaded with the family to come visit her at her home in a refugee camp in Nablus.

Ben Hagai had uncovered a secret that her family would have preferred to keep quiet: She had Palestinian relatives.

"I wanted to make a mysterious film about Pnina's disappearance - a Rashomon of family history in which there were only bits and pieces of evidence - but I didn't know that I had family in a refugee camp," says Ben Hagai. "When I found out, it was a turning point for the movie, which became something very real and alive and dramatic."

The stunning discovery added another ingredient to Ben Hagai's melting pot of Israeli identities. Her paternal grandparents were among the founders of Kibbutz Deganya Bet, socialist pioneers from Russia who arrived in this country with the Second Aliyah; her maternal grandmother Rachel came to Yavniel from the old Yishuv (Jewish community ) in Tiberias.

"They were like Jewish Arabs who lived with Arabs for hundreds of years, spoke Arabic and were nursed by Arab women," says Ben Hagai, discussing her Galilean family background at her home in Tel Aviv.

"My grandmother's family were the poor outcasts of the moshava - the only one of 16 families in Yavniel who were not Ashkenazim from Europe," she continues. "The pioneers looked down on my great-grandfather, Matzliah Bechor, because he looked like an Arab. The only reason they let him settle there at all was that his father conducted the negotiations with the Arabs for Baron Rothschild's purchase of the lands."

Bechor brought his wife Simha from Tiberias to Yavniel and all his children were born there, including Rachel and Pnina. The children tried to escape what Ben Hagai calls "the Yavniel curse." Her grandmother married Yitzhak Ettinger, a Russian-born army man, well known in the intelligence community. Their children Shmuel and Ofra (Ben Hagai's mother ) were born in Nahariya, "and I grew up with the Ashkenazi identity of a kibbutznik," says Ben Hagai, who spent most of her childhood on Kibbutz Afik in the Golan Heights.

The crazy history of this land led Pnina Bechor to find an entirely different type of escape from the same curse. Not until she renewed contact with her family did most of them learn for the first time that when she left Yavniel, she met an Arab vegetable salesman from Jaffa, who took her in. She converted to Islam for him, changed her name and had eight children with him. During the War of Independence, she fled with her new family and became a Palestinian refugee.

Noa Ben Hagai
David Bachar

When Ben Hagai began researching the family history, she discovered another dimension to the drama: Several years after Pnina disappeared, Rachel had found her in Tul Karm and tried to convince her to return to her family, but Pnina refused to abandon her children. After that, Rachel declared Pnina dead and even sat shivah for her. When the family received Pnina's letters, it was if they had come from beyond the grave, from the next world.

The surprising, renewed connection between descendants of the Bechor family, Jews and Arabs, blossomed for a time in wake of the Israeli euphoria after the 1967 war. Some of Pnina's siblings came to the refugee camp for visits, and she also visited Israel with her children. However, from the letters it is clear that Pnina was the one who had the strongest need for this connection: In a childish hand, in a mishmash of Hebrew and Arabic, she repeatedly urges her family to remember that she is their sister. She implores them to visit her, to send her bananas, eggs and avocados, to bring her medicine, to arrange work permits in Israel for her family members. But after Pnina's death in 1971, the connection between the families was cut off completely - until Ben Hagai came along and awakened the family ghosts.

"Blood Relation," produced by Edna and Elinor Kowarsky, has been screened at various festivals around the world and won a prize in Shanghai, and is being screened as part of the International Women's Film Festival in Rehovot that began this week, ahead of further showings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Through this unusual family story, the complexity of relations between Palestinians and Israelis over the past 43 years is unveiled. What began with mutual curiosity, quickly turned to uneasiness and primarily to the dependence of the weak upon the strong - a dependence that is not pleasant for either side, even if they are part of one family, even if they believe in peace.

After discovering the letters four years ago, Ben Hagai persuaded her uncle, Shmulik Ettinger - who, in the kind of coincidence that can only happen in Israel, served as the military governor of Ramallah from 1988-1991 - to try to renew the relationship that had been cut off nearly 40 years earlier. In the movie, Ettinger is seen calling his cousin Salma, Pnina's youngest daughter, now 50, and inviting her to visit him at his home in Jerusalem: a beautiful Arab house in the Baka neighborhood.

"In this phone conversation, after 40 years of Shmulik avoiding her family for fear it would harm his army career, he finds out that Salma still lives in her mother's house and that she also inherited from her the expectation that her Jewish relatives would one day call and save her," says Ben Hagai. "As a documentary filmmaker, I thought this conversation would be the most dramatic thing you could imagine. I anticipated it with much excitement. But it was so far from what I imagined. It was a simple, unemotional conversation. When I asked Salma about this later on, she said to me, 'What did you expect? Somebody calls me and says he's an officer in the Israeli army, speaking the Arabic of an army officer. Right away I thought that it was the Shin Bet and that they wanted to recruit my son, so I kept my cool.'"

The planned visit stirs up mixed emotions. Ettinger's wife, Sara, did not feel comfortable about having her husband's poor relations exposed to her affluent lifestyle. While her comments seem at the beginning of the film to be an attempt to spoil the party, they turn out to be a very accurate prediction. After the first encounter, things get complicated: Despite the left-wing Jewish family's good intentions and desire to welcome the Palestinian relatives, they come to realize that what is involved is a commitment that goes beyond open-mindedness and good will.

The first crisis occurs when Salma's husband, Sami, is apprehended in Tel Aviv without a permit to be in Israel. Shmulik has to use his connections to keep him from being deported to Gaza, which his Palestinian ID lists as his place of residence, but from which his family fled when Hamas came to power there. With the help of his own connections, Uncle Shmulik gets the family's address changed to Nablus, so the threat of deportation to Gaza is lifted.

But this is just the beginning. The Jewish side of the family soon comes to learn that assisting a poor refugee family living under the occupation requires more than a little effort: getting Sami and his son released on bail, giving financial support and helping to obtain work permits for Israel. Before long, the thrilling family reunion becomes oppressive, with the Jewish side constantly feeling that something is expected of it that it can't necessarily provide, and the Palestinian side feeling that the warmth of the reception becomes cold when the need for real help arises. After the extended Jewish family pays a visit to Salma's home, where they dine on lamb and look through old photo albums, Salma tells about how she had waited in vain for a phone call from the visitors to thank her and to invite her over. In the end, she breaks down and calls them herself.

Before the painful encounter with reality, Ben Hagai was brimming with idealism. Her lovely final film project for the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television in Jerusalem, "Brave Land," was filmed in Cuba, and concerned her encounter with what she calls "the place where my dream (a socialist lifestyle ) was fulfilled."

Ben Hagai was born in 1971 on Kibbutz Deganya Bet, and at age 5 moved with her family to Kibbutz Afik: "We came to the Golan Heights nine years after it was conquered and I spent my childhood on the site of the ruins of the Syrian village of Fik, with cows that I imagined were left over from the Syrians, with the figs and sabras from their orchards, swimming in their spring. I grew up in this bizarre and wild place."

Pnina Bechor and her family in the refugee camp in the 1960s

In the army, she worked on the Bamahane newspaper. During that time, her parents divorced, and in another classic variation on Israeliness, her father Ehud, the proud kibbutznik, moved to Santa Monica.

"My father is a physicist, and you could say that his leaving also had something to do with politics. He understood that his research would be used for military purposes here, and that upset him," says Ben Hagai. "The man who is so connected to his roots and was always so nostalgic for the landscapes of his childhood now lives on the beach in California, and is married to an American woman."

When Ben Hagai got out of the army, she studied economics, philosophy and political science at Tel Aviv University.

"As a socialist, I had a passion to know the enemy, to understand the economic discourse," she explains. "As a theory it's very interesting, but to work in the field is something completely different. I worked in a bank for two days and I knew it wasn't for me."

Her next stop was the Sam Spiegel school, where two of her classmates were Rima Essa and Yael Hersonski, who both recently completed acclaimed full-length films. Since completing her studies seven years ago, Ben Hagai married Rani Einav and they have three children - Yonatan, 6; Ruti, 4; and Gila, 2.


While searching for a subject for a new film, Ben Hagai began looking into the story of Pnina's disappearance. The bleak past in Yavniel, and the bleak present of the Palestinian relatives, seemed to form a continuous thread running through the family history.

"My identity had always seemed very clear to me - kibbutz, socialism, Ashkenazi-ness, and then suddenly I discovered an 'ancient' origin," she says. "With my political orientation, I was attracted to the Arab-Jews who lived here as good neighbors with the Arabs 100 years ago and more. I found out that they were the poorest of the poor, but there was also a heroic and touching dimension to their stubborn attempt to hide their weakness. This was expressed in the way they went about preserving their honor. The elders of Yavniel said that it was to our credit that we were a modest and quiet family and that the girls were always clean and well-groomed. Amid all the chaos of Pnina's disappearance, what was important to them was not to have this shame exposed. What I discovered wasn't their Mizrahi-ness, but their weakness. But Zionism made mobility possible. They did everything possible to reach the heart of society and to reinvent themselves as far away as possible from being an outsider."

The extended family did not react very sympathetically to Ben Hagai's attempts to remind them of where they came from. Her uncle Shmulik and her mother Ofra at first were loyal to the stance adopted by their mother Rachel, who refused to meet with Pnina after Pnina made contact with the family.

"In 1967, I was a soldier in the Paratroops, and it didn't occur to me at all to meet with the Palestinian relatives," says Ettinger. "And even now, when Noa suggested it for the movie, I wasn't keen on it, because I knew what would happen. I knew that despite all the nice theories, nothing good would come out of it. My uncle warned me: They'll lie in wait at your doorstep and start leeching off you. I was a [military] governor and I know what the Palestinians' life is like and I know how important it is to them to form an attachment with someone in a position of power in order to improve their situation. But I told Noa that for her I was ready to do it."

Ben Hagai has another explanation for her family's reluctance to get back in touch: "After all the years when they made efforts to upgrade their lives from the impoverishment of Yavniel, suddenly our Arab relatives show up and they're a very clear reminder of what we tried to escape from. We're in another place now. It's terribly dramatic within one family - occupiers versus occupied, rich versus poor.

Pnina Bechor

"Two generations earlier, we were in a similar situation: The sewage that flowed by the hut in Yavniel is no different than the sewage that flows in the refugee camp. It was a real shock for my mother and her siblings. I felt it was very hard for them. But maybe guilt feelings over the relationship that was cut off, about what their parents did, led them to sit in front of my camera, and to meet and talk with them. They also came into this because they wanted to help me. They were being very kind to me. They wouldn't let me feel like I put them in an unpleasant situation. Well, maybe a little."

A recurrent theme in the filmmaker's comments is the difficulty involved in wanting to help weaker people although you know you'll never be able to fix the situation.

"I brought everyone into a very complicated relationship that involves a lot of dependence, and not everyone wants it now," she notes. "I opened a wound that I can't heal. I wasn't aware of the fears and anxieties on my side of the family, or of the expectations on the Palestinian side of the family. In the end, it did not lead to a warm and close relationship. No wall between us really fell. On the other hand, there is something to be said about the fact that the secret came out and everyone had to deal with it."

Ben Hagai's brother and two sisters tried to warn her against opening up the family secrets, because of how they imagined the exposure of the story would affect the Palestinian side of the family. They told her she was being an opportunist and exploiting the family pain and misery for the purposes of her career. Ben Hagai rejected this criticism. She's prepared to be accused of naivete, she says, but won't apologize for that either.

"There's always the moment when you turn off the camera and the people return to the dark, and their loss from the film is usually a lot greater than their gain, while I, as a director, have gained experiences and interest, and my 15 minutes of fame. But it doesn't have to be that way," she insists. "I believed that I could change things, that I could really help them. I think that naivete is a political position that one should have today. Better to be optimistic, even if it's unrealistic.

"I believed that it was possible to fix things, to go back to the place where everything began in the past and to shift the tragic course of events, but as time goes by, I find that I'm no better than anyone else. In the film, the way the family abandoned Pnina 74 years ago gradually becomes Salma's fate, too. She is neglected by us again, and I bear full responsibility for this. Salma expects us to be her salvation, and we don't live up to that. If we'd been able to arrange work permits in Israel for her children then I would have felt we'd done a lot. But even Shmulik with his army connections wasn't able to accomplish this."

So you feel the family reunification failed?

Ben Hagai: "There are moments of hope or solace and closeness between the families, when they meet and the camera catches the physical resemblance and the longing for the 'good times,' after '67. I do believe that eventually, some day, something might come of this, that there will be a close relationship. They know we're here and that if they need us, if something really terrible happens, we will help them. And this reacquaintance did lead to some moments of closeness."

Ettinger is less optimistic. "I don't feel good about it now, they've become quite dependent on me financially," he says. "The movie taught me that the phrase 'blood ties' is just empty words. It is not a central component in the emergence of a renewed relationship, especially when there are cultural differences and socioeconomic differences, and then of course there are the political aspects. In Salma's family, too, there were people who objected to having any contact with us. The one who got hurt in the end is Salma because she had expectations. What good have we done for her? Just because I send her a little money here and there - it doesn't solve the problem. It's not a comfortable situation. You have to look people in the eye who don't have enough to eat."

Another thing that surprised Ettinger for the worse was the change he says that occurred in the military.

"The movie caused a crisis for me, because when I was a military governor I tried to help the people, to ease the burden of the occupation. I can't change political facts, but I helped them 'swallow' the bitter fate," he says. "The system has changed. Now there is a lot of indifference. We used to think that occupiers needed to be humane, too, that we needed to make it easier on the Palestinians and not humiliate them. I discovered that in today's system, the concept of 'humanitarian considerations' no longer exists."

Since Ben Hagai's film was completed, it has been making the rounds of international festivals. It was shown at the IDFA, the most important annual festival for documentary films, in Amsterdam; at the Shanghai Festival it won the prize for best documentary in Asia. Ben Hagai, who calls herself a "woman of the little world," particularly enjoyed attending all the festivals.

"For six years I've been changing diapers, and making the movie was a difficult experience," she explains. "And then suddenly I showed the film and I felt how people in China, who have no idea who is a Jew and who is an Arab, were relating to it and telling me that it was their story - that they are the wealthy of Shanghai and they have impoverished relatives in the countryside who ask them for support. When I showed the film in Europe, it took on a very political dimension. People said the film reflects our desperate situation, but in China what spoke to them was the 'melodrama' of the weak and the strong within one family, the relationship of dependence, and the need to help the black sheep."

After the film's success abroad, Ben Hagai was faced with the inevitable question of what would be her next project, or more precisely, her next project about the occupation.

"When I showed the film at the IDFA, I understood what kind of options could open up to me. International producers asked me what my next film was going to be, and hinted that they would be glad if it were about the occupation, but from an extreme direction, from a new angle showing how terrible the reality can be. It was clear that they wanted something very extreme and bloody about the Israeli reality, if possible something about apartheid, and to mix in the Holocaust, too, if possible. I understood that as a filmmaker in Israel, no one expects me to make a movie about tree-huggers and that if I want to succeed in the world, then I have to keep on dealing with political subjects."

Ben Hagai is also trying to contend with the criticism that Israeli documentary filmmakers are soothing their and viewers' consciences by making films about the occupation, as a substitute for actual political activism.

Film scholar Shmulik Duvdevani even wrote in his book, "First Person, Camera," that "The [filmmakers] often position themselves as victims, as if their mere readiness to acknowledge their responsibility makes them morally superior to others ..."

Ben Hagai: "I ask myself if I am part of this glorious tradition of Israeli documentary filmmaking, that makes a career out of the suffering of the Palestinians and its guilt feelings over that. I think that the reality here imposes upon you a political consciousness, and that if you live here then you're going to make movies about the burning issues, and what's burning here is the occupation. I didn't make a movie about the Palestinians, but about a well-intentioned left-wing family that discovers one day that it has to cope with poor Palestinian relatives. I made a movie about our point of view, about the condescension, not about their wretchedness. I asked about the responsibility of the occupiers toward the occupied. I exposed my dilemma, of the tormented occupier, the one who, as the saying goes, 'shoots and cries.'"

That sounds just like the problem that Duvdevani describes.

"I can say in my defense that in the movie, I let the arrows pierce me too. I take it on the chin in the movie like everybody else - even more so in some way, because I'm the one responsible for this whole fiasco. Viewers don't come out with a feeling of catharsis because they see the torment my family undergoes."

Today, the contact with Salma and her family is mostly by telephone. The rare meetings take place in Jerusalem, at the Ettingers' home. Ben Hagai says she tried to arrange some happier events, like a trip with Salma and her granddaughters to the Tel Aviv beach, but Salma was not cooperative. The encounters usually take place when Salma comes to ask for something, and this creates a very difficult dynamic in the relationship, says Ben Hagai: "She mostly asks for help from Shmulik, because he has the means and the power and influence. He handles it with grace, but he's always asking himself how he'll get out of this. I give her money, but it's not enough. I wanted to create pleasant and close experiences together, like going to the beach, but that's a ridiculous fantasy. She should have to cross 700 checkpoints and spend two days getting permits just so I can feel better about myself?"

Ettinger isn't helping Ben Hagai feel better about things either nowadays. "Sometimes not knowing is the best solution," he explains. "When you really know about the problems, it puts you in distress. I think the reality slapped Noa in the face. To a certain degree, she feels guilty for having put us through such turmoil, which is also emotional. It wasn't easy. It brought up ghosts from the past, including relationships in our family."

At the end of one of the screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, a woman came up and told Ben Hagai that she loved the movie and identified with it from the point of view of a rich person who's constantly expected to give. She said: "That's the problem with these poor people: You have to give to them and then when you do they don't say thank you, they just ask for more, and they end up hating you too because it's never enough and it just perpetuates the feeling that you have everything and they have nothing and are always needy."

But Ben Hagai still refuses to accept this pessimistic view, that all her Palestinian relatives want is money. "Shmulik and I ask all the time: Why is [Salma] in contact with us? Is it just out of a desire to connect with the more powerful party, or with what could ensure her future? I want to say that there's something else - that we are the family of her mother, from whom she was orphaned at age eight. We are part of her happy childhood memories from the period after the '67 war. I truly think that there is something very deep and emotional here. Obviously, she wants financial help, but there's more to it than that.

"I feel like there is a wall between us and her, and there are a lot of gaps between what is said and what is unsaid. And I also understand all of a sudden that just as we ask what she wants from us, she must be asking herself: What do they want from me? Why did they really get in touch?" W